What Makes Scandinavia Different?

What accounts for the Nordic countries' strong welfare states? Hint: it's not white homogeneity.

A mass gathering in Oslo before the 1936 general election. Norwegian Labour Party / Flickr

There’s a reason the Scandinavian welfare states are still the envy of many across the world. Even decades into a neoliberal project to reform them, Scandinavia sports relatively high income equality, large, tax-financed welfare programs, powerful unions, and relatively low unemployment rates.

Neoliberal textbooks tell us that the only way to societal prosperity is through low tax rates, deregulated business, and cut-throat competitive labor markets. Yet despite failing to meet the metrics of the Anglo-American variety of capitalism, Scandinavian countries stubbornly continue to prosper, and regularly come out on top of the global indexes of happiness and quality of life.

It is no surprise, therefore, to find neoliberals and conservatives devoting considerable intellectual energy to delegitimizing the “Nordic Model” of public welfare.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British neoliberal think tank, devoted an entire book to Scandinavian “unexceptionalism.” The aim was to explain away the success story of the Nordic welfare states, arguing in classical Hayekian fashion that the success of the Nordic countries predates the era of public welfare, and that anything exceptional and successful about it has vanished since then.

Meanwhile in the US, where the Bernie Sanders campaign has thrown ideas of Nordic social democracy into the political mainstream, National Review’s Kevin Williamson has adopted the opposite strategy. In a couple of recent pieces he acknowledges the continuing exceptionalism of the Nordic experience and admits that the Nordic countries have indeed been relatively successful until very recently.

But in a strange plot twist Williamson also racializes the Nordic experience, tying the success of social-democratic policies to the alleged whiteness and homogeneity of the Nordic countries, thus undermining its credibility as a source of inspiration for American progressives committed to antiracism.

The “Nordic Consensus”

In a National Review piece published in early July, Williamson calls Sanders a “national socialist” and denounces his use of “Us and Them” rhetoric as un-Scandinavian.

Williamson construes Sanders’s willingness to highlight conflicts of interest in popular power as being supposedly the “polar opposite” of how politics is done in Scandinavia — where politics is “consensus-driven” — and that where this “conformity” constitutes a “stabilizing and moderating force in politics, allowing for the emergence of a subtle and sophisticated and remarkably broad social agreement that contains political disputes.”

Scandinavian politics is much less partisan and more coalition-prone than in the US, with proportional representation effectively denying any one party an absolute parliamentary majority. But we should not mistake a contingent twentieth-century historical conjuncture of relative political civility for a supra-historical essence of Nordic political culture.

Today the universal welfare state and regulated, egalitarian labor markets, are so popular among voters that even liberal or conservative politicians wanting to dismantle them have to run as defenders of public welfare if they wish to avoid electoral suicide. But this situation did not emerge from the mists of history. It is the product of decades of struggles from organized labor and other popular movements throughout the twentieth century.

The social-democratic welfare state has faced strong historical challenges — both from the Left, by strong communist and new left movements, and from the Right, by organized business, such as the powerful Swedish employer organization SAF, and by Tea Party-like anti-taxation movements, which appeared in the 1970s in Norway and Denmark.

Simply put, the “Nordic Consensus” has never been as comprehensive as Williamson would have us believe.

Social-Democratic Privilege?

Shortly after the “national socialist” essay, Williamson published another piece entitled “The Whitest Privilege.” In it, he performs an astonishing piece of pseudo-psychoanalysis of those on the American left who point to the Scandinavian welfare states as a source of political inspiration.

Progressives might say they want to adopt Scandinavian-style institutional models of public universal welfare, but what they really mean, Williamson informs us — with a hefty dose of hermeneutics of suspicion — is that they don’t like ethnic diversity: “’We’d like to make America more like Norway or Finland’ is, among other things, a way of saying, ‘We’d like to make America more like a virtually all-white society.’”

This accusation seems all the more odd considering it was Williamson himself who only two days prior reminded us that it is conservatives — not progressives — who have long theorized ethno-cultural homogeneity as the key to political-economic success: “That the relative success of the Western European welfare states, and particularly of the Scandinavian states, is rooted in cultural and ethnic homogeneity is a longstanding conservative criticism of Bernie-style schemes to recreate the Danish model in New Jersey and Texas and Mississippi.”

In any case, the premise of Williamson’s masked attempt to racialize the Scandinavian success story is flawed. Williamson writes that the “nations of Northern Europe” were until recently “ethnically homogeneous, overwhelmingly white, hostile to immigration, nationalistic, and frankly racist in much of their domestic policy.”

The first two of these observations — homogeneous and white — are obviously true, but mundanely so. However, the ensuing claims bring Williamson onto thin ice. Perhaps half-realizing that it would be plainly false to directly describe his actual target, the Nordic countries, as particularly racist, xenophobic, or nationalist compared to other countries, in Europe or around the world, Williamson opts for the wider and vaguer descriptor “Northern Europe.”

Scandinavia is not exceptional by European standards when it comes to racism and nationalism, and one can readily find examples of both hostility to immigration, chauvinistic nationalism, and racist policies in the histories of the Nordic countries.

For example, like most European countries, antisemitism was bad in the Nordic countries before World War II, and nationalist fervor swept through all of the Nordic countries in the nineteenth century, as it did around the world.

Likewise, to the limited extent that the Nordic countries have colonial histories, there is also a history of institutionalized racism (á la Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the UK, the Netherlands, France, the US, etc.) that has survived into contemporary times. The abysmal treatment by Danish authorities of the indigenous population of Greenland is a case in point from the post–World War II period.

But Williamson fails to prove first, that the Nordic countries — whether we are talking about state policy or popular sentiment — really do have a consistently worse track record than other countries (including the US), and second, that racism played any part in the establishment of the Nordic-style universal welfare states in the twentieth century.

Williamson’s attempt at substantiation of the claim of intrinsic Nordic xenophobia is limited to a selective set of facts about Swedish immigration history, presumably the ugliest truths he could find. On closer inspection, they all seem to be derived from a single article by anthropologist Charles Westin, and none seem to really support Williamson’s insinuation of institutional Swedish racism.

We are given three pieces of information. First, that most of the worker immigrants coming to Sweden for many years were from other Scandinavian countries, because the trade-union confederation was worried about “cheap foreign labor.” In highlighting this fact, Williamson simply displays his ideological proclivities by identifying any opposition to controls on national labor market entry, whatever its motivations, as by definition “Buchananite.”

Yet the stance of the Swedish trade-union confederation, the LO, was evidently not motivated by xenophobia. Rather, the purpose was to defend the living conditions of any worker in Sweden, regardless of race, ethnicity, or citizenship. As Westin writes (but Williamson conveniently forgets to add): “[The LO] agreed that importing cheap labor would not be allowed and that foreign workers were to enjoy the same wage levels and rights as Swedes, including access to unemployment benefits.”

Second, we are told that many Jews were rejected when seeking refuge in Sweden in the 1930s and 1940s due to prevalent antisemitism. What Williamson does not tell us is that this picture changed fairly drastically during the war itself, as large numbers of Jews from both Norway and Denmark (alongside members of the movements resisting the German occupation) escaped to Sweden. Here, again, Westin is informative: “At first there was some reluctance to accept these foreigners but fairly soon they were generally accepted and even welcomed.”

Third, we are told that “the modern Swedish word for ‘immigrant’ does not mean ‘foreign-born person,’ but ‘non-Nordic person in Sweden.’” This fact does have some bite, but here too Williamson forgets to give us the whole story — this time about the active attempts of the Swedish state to combat this unfortunate habit of thought.

As Westin writes:

Today, authorities avoid the term “immigrant,” using instead “persons of migrant origin” in official discourse. A policy of diversity management was introduced some years back in order to counteract tendencies of social exclusion and stereotyping. More teeth have also been put in to the previously rather weak laws on ethnic discrimination.

In sum, Williamson’s case presenting the Nordic Model as inherently racist is weak at best. It is certainly true that the Nordic countries today all have sizable right-wing populist movements dominated by xenophobic sentiment, but this is equally true for most other European countries.

Indeed, if the Nordic-style welfare state is particularly compatible with and conducive to racism, how does one explain the similar growth of xenophobic right-wing populism in France, Switzerland, and the UK, all countries with distinctly different social systems?

It is true that we have yet to see strong antiracist and anti-discrimination movements in Scandinavia analogous to the Civil Rights Movement in the US. But on the other hand, one would also be hard-pressed to find examples in modern Nordic history of equivalents of the organized grassroots racism of the Ku Klux Klan or the institutionalized racism of Jim Crow.

We are not suggesting that the Nordic populations are inherently less racist than other populations. We are merely saying that Williamson fails to prove there is anything intrinsically racist or nationalist about the Nordic experience. Nor did twentieth-century Nordic welfare states make ethnic exclusion a key principle of functioning; on the contrary, they were based on universal principles of entitlement-through-citizenship, and not on internally exclusionary principles based on race or culture.

Scandinavian Exceptionalism

If “white homogeneity” is not a key variable, how should we then explain Scandinavian exceptionalism? The first step is realizing that many aspects of the development of the Scandinavian welfare state are not that exceptional — they are a variant of the general Western European experience.

The modern Nordic states have been in the fortunate position of developing in the immediate geographical proximity of the core countries of the capitalist world system, while also maintaining political independence. This serendipitous historical circumstance meant that the Nordic countries profited, directly or indirectly, first from the trade flows of early mercantile capitalism and later from industrialism and colonialism.

At first they developed through lucrative trade in primary commodities — processed agricultural goods in Denmark, timber and metal ore in Sweden — but from the late nineteenth century onward they managed to industrialize. As a result, the Nordic countries, like the rest of Northwest Europe, turned out comparatively rich and well-organized.

Scandinavia was also not alone in developing comprehensive social welfare systems in the twentieth century. Across Western Europe, the kernel of a social compromise around the building of universal welfare institutions emerged in the early twentieth century in step with the rise of organized labor movements.

In the aftermath of World War II, European elites, wary of a radicalized workforce and the rise of Soviet Communism, found it necessary to compromise with labor in order to retain the capitalist system. This resulted in rapidly rising real wages and the building of social welfare institutions in all of US-controlled Western Europe, helped along by Marshall Aid and generous access to the American market.

Here again, Scandinavia conformed to the general West European trend. But this new model of social capitalism took a more radical form here than elsewhere. Under the hegemony of strong social-democratic parties, redistribution and welfare provisions in areas such as health care, education, transport, and housing reached an extent not seen anywhere else in Europe.

This was to a large degree the product of uniquely strong labor movements, politically empowered by robust alliances with social-democratic parties. Labor managed to achieve political hegemony by forging alliances with other popular movements supporting egalitarianism and democratization, most notably the peasant-based corporative movement and the women’s movement after the 1970s.

The Scandinavian welfare state probably reached its apex in the 1970s and ’80s, when inequality was at some of the lowest levels recorded in capitalist economies. In addition, Denmark and Sweden saw widespread union support for programs of economic democracy, which through wage-earner funds would gradually take over the ownership of the means of productions.

However, it was also at this time that the Nordic model started to show its first cracks.

The social-democratic project never managed to successfully challenge the power of privately owned capital. When the pressures of international competition and European economic integration narrowed the space for national policy and moved the political terrain decisively in favor of business, the social compromise underlying the “Nordic welfare model” started to unravel.

In this conjuncture, the Nordic model proved fragile, and Scandinavia was not immune to the neoliberal wave that swept the globe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since the 1990s even the Nordic social-democratic parties have largely adapted to a new policy consensus around privatization, deregulation, and reduction of social rights and benefits. As a consequence, the social systems of Scandinavia are gradually approaching the European mainstream.

The Rise of the Right

It is within the context of the welfare state’s deterioration that one can understand the specific form that right-wing populism has taken in Scandinavia.

Williamson is actually on the mark when he points to “welfare chauvinism” as a contemporary malaise in the Nordic political climate, but he fails to understand the causes of this phenomenon. The rise of the True Finns, Norway’s Progress Party, the Danish People’s Party, and the Sweden Democrats is a product of national particularities. But common to all of these groups is the crucial support they draw from significant fractions of the working class that, since the 1980s, have become uprooted from relatively secure lives as a consequence of deindustrialization and welfare retrenchment.

Moreover, the weakening of the labor movement in the neoliberal era has produced a negative feedback loop that has cut the deep ties — the civil society infrastructure — between the labor movement, the Social Democrats, and the working-class public and undermined solidaristic values.

In his book on the rise of Progress Party, Norwegian author and researcher Magnus Marsdal describes how traditionally social-democratic working-class voters are unable to identify with a social-democratic party that seems absorbed by academic technocracy and completely detached from the worries of ordinary blue-collar voters. With the dominant parties advocating the same sort of economic policy, these voters instead turn to the issue of immigration when deciding their political allegiance.

The historical peculiarity of the xenophobic, right-wing populism now sweeping the Nordic countries and the rest of Northern Europe is its co-articulation with the defense of the crumbling welfare state. As social protection decreases, some people come to misconstrue two effects of globalization and capital restructuring — mass immigration and deteriorating welfare services — as being causally related.

It is precisely because the Nordic welfare states are universal, and not ethnically exclusionary, that two analytically distinct problems have become juxtaposed in contemporary Nordic politics: on the one hand, maintaining a welfare state under the pressure of neoliberal globalization; on the other, managing the transformation from mono-ethnic to multiethnic society.

The intermarriage between two forms of security-inducing nostalgia — ethno-cultural and material — is welfare chauvinism in a nutshell. But this welfare chauvinism is not a logical continuation of the Nordic welfare state. Rather, it is a sadly infectious deviation from it, produced by popular despair after more than three decades of neoliberal reforms.

Lessons From the Nordic Experience

This does not mean that there is no inspiration to be drawn from the Scandinavian social system for progressives abroad. From tax-financed free education to subsidized child care and generous unemployment benefits, there are plenty of programs that are still among the most progressive in the world.

But while drawing on these policies for inspiration, it is important to note that Scandinavian exceptionalism is not based on a given set of institutions and policies ready to be implemented by enlightened technocrats. The Nordic countries’ institutional blueprints were produced by a strong labor movement in alliance with other popular forces. When this basis started to erode, as happened in Scandinavia from the 1980s onwards, so did the welfare institutions.

The only way to get “Scandinavian levels” of redistribution and social protection is to start building powerful popular movements capable of advancing this agenda.

A successful US movement for a comprehensive welfare state in a multiethnic country would provide not only an excellent response to explicit or implicit cultural determinism, but could also be an important source of inspiration for European progressives in search of effective tools to combat welfare chauvinism.